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Practices of Power and Black Female Epistemology

The Conceptual Practices of Power

  • Male social universe is a social environment that only takes into account male interests. Smith suggests that up until recently, the entire sociological thought has been primarily male-centered. Men take front and center of sociology while their counterparts are never really taken seriously. Of course, in real life, men’s and women’s worlds are not completely separate, even though there are some cultural variations to it. But women are excluded from the narrative as if they never existed nor contributed to living spaces. There are two problems related to this male social universe described by Smith (Calhoun et al. 399). Firstly, for a very long time, sociology has been building hypotheses and theories about perception and human experience based on men’s lives. Barely anyone cared to take into account how women saw the world – their perspective was deemed insignificant. The second serious issue with male-centered sociology is that it ignores female-dominated domains. For example, even now, the worlds of household, children, and neighborhood are still predominantly female, and they are an indispensable part of our reality. Yet, they are rarely analyzed with the same rigor and zeal as males domains;
  • Sociology, according to Smith, is less of a science; at the same time, it does not serve business entirely. The researcher thinks that seeing sociology as a tool to justify and rationalize business and management decisions is wrong. Another wrong approach is to use sociology for the sake of a small group of people with their own selfish interests. Smith suggests that sociology be used to produce abstract concepts and symbols. Sociologists transfer reality into a more structured and comprehensive system that hinges on theories;
  • The governing mode – is a mode that people enter when they acquire enough knowledge needed for making changes. Smith expands the understanding of governance: she says that it is not only about politics and politicians. In actuality, governing applies to many spheres of life both at micro- and macro levels. Smith explains that to enter the governing mode a person makes a transition (Calhoun et al. 399(. Typically, there are two life spaces that anyone can have more or less control of: their own body and the place where they are occupied with some kind of productive activity, for example, their workspace. The governing mode in this context is when a person reads and studies sociology to understand not only themselves but society in general. This takes the said person to the next level of consciousness where he or she can take action with a larger magnitude;
  • Women’s exclusion from the governing mode means women’s subjugated position as compared to that of men. Smith explains that human existence is two-fold: on the one hand, we strive to occupy ourselves with intellectual labor (Calhoun et al. 399). We want to make more out of our lives and fulfill our dreams. At that, spirituality is also very important: people do realize that they are more than their bodies and pay attention to their high-level aspirations. On the other hand, there is menial bodily experience: to sustain themselves, humans have to eat, sleep, and arrange their living space in a way that would serve their needs. Smith says that genders are not treated equally nor do they unlock their potential in the same way (Calhoun et al. 399). Men can shift responsibility for household and child rearing methods to women and dedicate themselves to a higher purpose. Women, in turn, are burdened with domestic labor, and it is easily imaginable how they are left with no mental and physical energy to do anything else. Smith shows that even if a woman works in a corporate setting, she is still likely to be assigned mundane tasks (Calhoun et al. 399). In fact, she is a mediator between the material and the abstract. She does indeed realizes the company’s mission and vision, but she does it by doing such things as surveying, answering the phone, writing letters, and others;
  • Alienation is a Marxist concept used by Smith to illustrate what happens to women when their activities are confined to the material sphere. Alienation is the oppression that drives workers to benefit the ruling class with their labor (Calhoun et al. 399). A non-feminist example would be workers at the factory who survive off a meager wage while the owner of the factory thrives because of what their work brings him or her. Alienation in this case means that workers do not get to truly enjoy the results of their labor. From the feminist standpoint, women are alienated because they create comfortable living conditions for men who gain more authority in the meantime. The more women dedicate themselves to household matters and serve men, the more men are able to take their mind off the mundane and enter the governing mode;
  • Reorganization of sociology is what needed to make this science more inclusive, as per Smith’s suggestion. The researcher states that the methods and approaches need to be restructured. It is not enough to just take whatever tools we have and analyze women and their experience. These tools are primarily created by men and as much as they may make sense in other aspects, women deserve an individualized approach. In essence, Smith thinks that sociologists need to be inductive and start with experience (Calhoun et al. 400). Women need to share their perspectives, and even if every woman’s life may be unique in its own right, some patterns are bound to show up. So basically, it is a down-top, not top-down approach: we start with the subject (women) and make them the primary storytellers;
  • Perspective vs. experience. Smith differentiates between perspective and experience in her works (Calhoun et al. 400). She states that experience is neutral: it is not good or bad, it is just what happens. A woman can tell her life story by simply lay out basic facts, and this will be her experience. A perspective is a form of experience that is conceptualized and understood. If a woman made sense of what had happened to her, it can be her perspective. For example, she had a negative experience with some aspect of her life, and now she has a clear opinion about it that goes beyond factual information;
  • Bifurcated consciousness means the difference between the actual facts and their representation. Smith claims that one of the biggest challenges that sociology faces is interpreting experiences (Calhoun et al. 400). For some experiences, it is possible to get first-hand information, for instance, by talking to people. But this is not exactly the case with the majority of events. Very often, we have to deal with experiences that have already been interpreted by someone else. A good example would be reading about an event in a newspaper as opposed to witnessing it ourselves.

Black Feminist Epistemology

  • US Black feminist thought addresses the experiences of Black American women. Collins argues that Black feminist thought is needed as an independent subfield and a social movement because Black women are often ignored. Sociology and philosophy are mostly shaped by White men who draw on their own experiences when making conclusions about the world. Black women are subjugated in society based on two traits: their gender and their race. Collins calls it intersecting oppressions: Black women are twice as vulnerable than women and Black people as a whole (Calhoun et al. 405). Black feminist thought addresses many important topics such as work, education, sex, motherhood, body image, and others. What is interesting is that Black women can express their affiliation with Black feminist thought in a variety of ways. For instance, they can use ethnic music, dance, or create literature, making consciousness part of their everyday lives;
  • Epistemology is a theory of knowledge that makes us think why believe in certain things. The matter of truth in sociology and philosophy is a big deal. So it is only reasonable to have an entire subfield dedicated primarily to solving what is true, what is not, and exactly how we came to this conclusions. In essence, epistemology allows us to decide whom to trust out of a variety of opinion leaders and influencers. Of course, another important issue is to decide what questions are even worth answering because some things do not deserve an in-depth investigation. Collins states that in US Black feminist thought, there are two epistemological approaches (Calhoun et al. 405). The first represents the interests of White males and the other one Black feminists’ concerns;
  • Eurocentrism is a paradigm that favors the knowledge of White people, or rather White men. To be eurocentric means discarding colored people’s experiences and choosing to believe what White people say is true. Collins says that eurocentrism permeates academia and lays foundation for theoretical subjects;
  • Knowledge validation process occurs when a new piece of knowledge needs external approval. It needs to be recognized as true and trustworthy. There are two main problems with knowledge validation in modern society. Firstly, experts that validate knowledge come with their own set of beliefs and values. Given the subjugation of women and minorities, these experts are often White males. Therefore, it is readily imaginable that they can be limited in their perception of the world. In particular, Collins says that typical experts assign Black women three roles: mammies, matriarchs, and jezebels (Calhoun et al. 407). Simply put, they are maternal, dominating, or promiscuous, none of which reflects the reality of Black female experience. The second problem arising from the first is that even if an expert decides to go against societal norms, he or she might face resistance. Experts are supported by their communities because they share the same values. A single expert that wants a change may be alienated by his or her people, in which case knowledge coming from women or minorities might not be properly validated.

Another issue with knowledge validation process is the lack of Black female experts. Collins is convinced that Black women do not have easy access to academia to become accomplished in their fields (Calhoun et al. 407). There are still daunting problems of illiteracy, racism, and bias when it comes to Black female education. Therefore, it is easy to see how Black women who are denied authority positions in academia have to resort to alternative methods of knowledge validation. For example, they can channel their experiences into music, visual arts, or literature. But these artefacts are not accepted by the academic community, which once again invalidates Black female knowledge;

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  • Legitimacy acknowledgment is making people belief that a particular gender or race gets to enjoy more privileges. To make people acknowledge legitimacy means to convince them to accept the existing system with its power dynamics as is, without much criticism. Collins provides an interesting example of how the White male hegemony keeps everyone at bay. If no Black women are allowed in academia, sooner or later, the society will start protesting this (Calhoun et al. 408). Ensuring equal access is not an option because in this case the influx of alternative thinkers will threaten the foundations of White male thought. So the elites go about this issue in a very smart way: they allow some Black women in academia. Those women are typically compliant, and they are generously rewarded for helping an institution meet the quota. However, in the long run, their presence in the system does not really aid Black females’ standing;
  • Positivism is a scientific methodology that seeks to determine objective facts. There are three basic principles that positivist researchers must follow:
    • the researcher needs to distance him- or herself from the object of inquiry;
    • the research process must be completely devoid of emotions;
    • the researcher cannot use ethics as a reason for scientific inquiry or as a part of the research process itself (Calhoun et al. 411).

Collins says that positivism is not exactly compatible with Black feminist thought. Many experiences that Black women have cannot be measured. For example, it is not clear how one can gauge the emotional impact of racism. And then again, emotions are prohibited from being part of the research process (the second principle). Moreover, the first principle would not allow Black feminists to research themselves and draw conclusions based on their own lives. Lastly, it is easy to see that the concern for the Black female condition cannot be a reason for scientific inquiry, as per the third principle. Therefore, it is safe to say that Black female academicians are not equipped with methodologies that would fit them;

  • Agent of knowledge is someone in control of knowledge, which is made possible either through producing it or distributing it. Collins claims that throughout history, Black women have rarely been true agents of knowledge and in control of their own stories (Calhoun et al. 412). For ages, other people studied Black women and described their lives from their own, limited perspective. Today, Black feminist thought helps Black females to take a grip of the narrative, for which they often use alternative epistomology;
  • Alternative epistemology is the type of epistemology that is somehow different from what is universally recognized. Collins says that for Black women, epistemology is material: it is based on real life experiences (Calhoun et al. 411). Some examples of such experiences include the history of oppression, work conditions, slavery, and other phenomena;
  • Truthful identity is the end goal of Black feminist thought. If Black female academicians no longer rely on Eurocentric standards, they can discover for themselves how their lives are shaped by them being Black and female. They will approach what constitutes their truthful identity and will find their own voice.

Work Cited

Calhoun, Craig, et al. (Eds.). Contemporary Sociological Theory. Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

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